Saturday, November 8, 2014

Review: Imperfect spectacle with Interstellar

Note: I saw Interstellar on a DCP on a non-IMAX screen.

First of all, since many opinions seem to boil down to this basic question, let me say this: I really like Christopher Nolan. He makes hugely ambitious, expensive films, that don't assume that the audience is dumb. He delivers the proof that spectacle and brains can go together, shoots on film and doesn't like 3D. No other director could currently get a 200 million dollar film off the ground without significant creative interference from the studio. With his latest joint, Interstellar, he takes on the sci-fi genre. The director sends us through a wormhole into a foreign galaxy and the brain-frying realms of quantum physics, showing off his strengths and weaknesses in the process.

I won't elaborate much on the plot, aware of potential spoilers. The McConaissance reaches the next level as Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper. The pilot-turned-farmer is recruited for an ambitious mission by Michael Caine and NASA. As human life on earth reaches his final stages, they look towards space and launch an exploration of planets suitable for colonisation. In order to reach for the sky, Cooper has to leave his beloved children in the care of their grandfather (John Lithgow).

These Spielbergian daddy-issues are the emotional core of a film that spans millions of miles and transcends time. A strong sense of sentimentality defines Interstellar, which is the films biggest shortcoming. In the past, Nolan's films have frequently been criticised for being cold and failing to engage on an emotional level. I never had a problem with this previously, but unlike his earlier work, Interstellar relies heavily on sentiment. Unable to make you feel his emotion, Nolan opts to tell us over and over how he feels. Simply having your characters burst into tears every ten minutes is not enough to move an audience. The ending in particular falls flat as a consequence.

That said, Interstellar is still a must see. On a technical level, the film is predictably superb. Both the cornfields on earth and the vastness of space look and sound absolutely incredible. The switch from Wally Pfister to Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In; Her) in the position of cinematographer is hardly noticeable and the camerawork is slick, confident and smart. The film's strongest moments are full of excitment when Matthew McConaughey performs impossible aerobatic manoeuvres while Hans Zimmer's bombastic score is straining our eardrums.

I was also a fan of the film's treatment of science, which is smart, mostly accurate and appropriately complex. A basic knowledge of astrophysics and Einstein's theory of relativity should be enough to follow it however. After the film, you will want to know more about centrifuges, wormholes and space travel, which can only be a good thing. The importance of preserving childhood curiosity and the ability to dream big is essential to Interstellar. In an early scene, Cooper's daughter is suspended from school for getting in a fight over the authenticity of the moon landings.

Like in all good science-fiction movies, it's not all about excitement and spectacle. The film also raises interesting ideas and questions. Atypically, the machines are humanity's allies against the nature of earth in this vision. The frequent duststorms that afflict the cornfields surrounding Cooper-farm threaten the family's existence. Powerful and dirty, the can only be stopped by technology, space ships and sympathetic robots reminiscent of Bruce Dern's bionic friends in Silent Running. The central philosophy of the film meanwhile will cause problems for many. Despite the complexity of the storytelling, the ideas are quite simplistic, naive, romantic and have previously been done by the Harry Potter-franchise. You need to keep in mind that this is a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, whose primary concern is entertainment. Interstellar aims to be Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I am desperate to rewatch now) at the same time. Nolan doesn't quite succeed, but you have to admire his ambition and the sheer scale of his attempt. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Nolan ranked:

1. The Prestige 
2. The Dark Knight 
3. Inception 
4. Memento 
5. Insomnia 
6. Batman Begins 
7. Interstellar 
8. Following 
9. The Dark Knight Rises